When Mufti Mohammad Sayeed took over as the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir in March, he drew his political goodwill from his previous term in power as the head of a coalition government with the Congress party. As the Chief Minister between 2002 and 2005, Mufti, backed by the then prime ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, regained a measure of public confidence in the state’s mainstream politics. He dented the challenge of separatist groups by appropriating and redefining their narrative, ushered in a sense of security by holding the security establishment to account and became an active participant in the then promising India-Pakistan dialogue on Kashmir, which saw the re-opening of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road as a confidence-building measure.
But a month-and-a-half into his present term, that promise has faded into oblivion. The killing of two young men by security forces in two weeks and the consequent turmoil have raised serious questions not just on the survival of the PDP-BJP coalition government but also on its capacity to achieve anything redeeming at all.
One factor is the obsessive media focus on how this government speaks and acts —from Mufti’s praise for Pakistan on day one as the chief minister to the release of hardline Hurriyat leader Masarat Alam, who was re-arrested later for waving the Pakistan flag. This could well derail the grand vision set out in the PDP-BJP Common Minimum Programme, which, besides major steps like phased withdrawal of the AFSPA, sought to achieve a larger political reconciliation in Kashmir, including Pakistan, too, in the process.
“A PDP-BJP government is a historic opportunity for j&k and for India,” Mufti had said during his negotiations with the BJP. He talked of the need for engaging with the separatist groups, dialogue with Pakistan, a gradual revocation of the AFSPA, enhanced people-to-people contact and trade across the LOC and encouraging civil society exchanges to give Kashmir a fresh start.
But the coalition has struggled to get going. Inherently strained by the PDP and the BJP’s irreconcilable political ideologies, the coalition has been paralysed by the recurrent media-driven controversies that threaten to tip the state into another strife. So, despite being led by a CM with an enviable track record of politically succeeding in Kashmir when nothing seemed to work, the government finds its manoeuvring space choked by the excessive TRP fixation with Kashmir and its political fallout on the ground.
“Not just the PDP but even the Prime Minister feels constrained. More so, with the Congress acting more strident on the Kashmir issue than ever before,” says J&K Education Minister Naeem Akhter. “But we believe these are teething problems. We will overcome them and set about realising our agenda.”
But the party’s inability to act normally has taken a toll on its image in the Valley, where it is seen to be acting at the behest of the Centre and the television channels instead of heeding to the expectations of the people who elected it. No wonder, mainstream politics is being once again detested as a deadly game remote-controlled from New Delhi. “If the direction of the state government is to be decided in New Delhi and according to TRP preferences of TV studios, then what do we vote for?,” reads a Facebook post.
Mufti’s politics of the “battle of ideas” has been the biggest casualty of this process. In the run-up to the election, the pdp had promised to engage with the separatist groups so that they could be fought politically. This was, in fact, the main electoral plank of the Valley-based party and envisaged a policy that could carve out a space for dialogue and accommodation by respecting the separatists’ freedom to carry on with their political activities and compete with mainstream politics. But that promised reconciliatory approach died a premature death with the filing of firs against Hurriyat hardliners Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Alam.
“Everybody knows the PDP let Home Minister Rajnath Singh push them into filing an FIR against Alam,” says Awami Ittehad Party chief Engineer Rashid. “This proves that the rulers in Kashmir are just rubber stamps.”